The United States is dancing on the edge of an eviction crisis, and so it is darkly fitting that this is the time of year when we recount the story of a family of color desperately seeking shelter.

As the story of the Christmas Nativity goes, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary could find no room at an inn, and so they had to resort to a stable, where Mary gave birth to her baby. Those of us who celebrate Christmas find deep meaning in the notion that the King of Men — the one who would grow up to be the savior of mankind — was born homeless, his parents refugees from the wrath of Herod.

But, of course, homelessness is nothing to celebrate, and much of the way we mark the holiday bears little resemblance to the spirit of the story. Holiday advertisers are relentlessly encouraging lucky Americans to buy more stuff to fill their homes, even as millions of other Americans risk having their stuff put out on the street.

Many millions, actually. After Dec. 31, when a federal evictions moratorium is set to end, more than 30 million people in the United States could be in danger of losing their homes. Nearly 12 million Americans — disproportionately Black people and other families of color — will be an average of almost $6,000 behind on rent and utilities by the new year. That’s an increase of 3 million people in a month. Millions of others are falling significantly behind on their mortgages.

We now have covid-19 vaccines that will save lives. But if the United States does not move decisively to stave off its looming eviction and homelessness crisis, lives and livelihoods will be destroyed another way. These Americans are as much victims of covid-19 as the thousands fighting for breath in our hospitals.

Congress is hard at work, we are assured. The $900 billion relief package being hammered out by our lawmakers remains a moving target, but $600 stimulus checks, a short extension of emergency unemployment aid and a one-month extension of the federal eviction moratorium are under discussion. Do all that, by all means, but it’s all too little too late — like taking a Super Soaker to a forest fire that has been burning across the United States for nine months. It’s not going to put out the flames.

While many other advanced nations have figured out how to get their struggling citizens monthly checks, it’s an international disgrace that the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, has so far only provided one-time $1,200 stimulus payments. Another $600 won’t make the response any less disgraceful.

We need to get serious. The experience of losing one’s home is a painful gift that keeps on giving, trapping families in debt and poverty. For those who have been through it, the trauma and shame of the experience doesn’t easily go away.

Follow Karen Attiah‘s opinionsFollowAdd

The risks of falling short are multidimensional, and will affect us all. A wave of evictions could make the public health situation worse. People who lose their homes are forced to stay with friends or family or at shelters, where social distancing is difficult; the stress can weaken the immune system. The less fortunate end up sleeping in cars or on the streets, with little access to sanitation. Children have their educations disrupted. A vicious financial cycle is touched off: Evictions inflict serious harm on credit scores; landlords don’t want to rent to those who have been evicted before. The ripples spread far and wide.

What would begin to be equal to the crisis? Canceling rent might seem obvious, but housing journalist Francesca Mari instead calls for meeting the moment with universal basic income, at least in the short term. Half of U.S. rental units are owned by individuals, not corporate behemoths, Mari notes, so a rent holiday would be a “sure path to displacement: either the landlord will evict or the landlord will be forced to sell.” Over a longer horizon, Mari urges a government-backed plan to acquire more affordable housing units, before they get turned into condos.

Since Congress has predictably fallen short, and the president is who he is, we urgently need to hear more from the president-elect. Joe Biden has promised some measures to address systemic housing problems, including fighting racial discrimination, a renter and homeowner bill of rights, and more legal assistance for tenants facing evictions. Many of these reforms are necessary, but they all will take time. Americans desperately need help — or, dare I say, a miracle now.

There is spiritual significance in the fact that Jesus, born homeless, follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a carpenter — to furnish and build for others. Can we not heed the lesson in that? Because if we cannot find the will and compassion to provide housing and shelter for those in need, we only will be further evidence that the United States, so-called Christian nation, has lost its way.

Read more: